Young People and Social Change in Hong Kong

Alistair Fraser, University of Hong Kong

As all the best things do, this project began with a bit of luck. Before moving out to Hong Kong from Glasgow, I was messing around, looking for literature on Hong Kong, and turned up this tantalising reference:

Jephcott, P. (1971) The Situation of Children and Youth in Hong Kong.

I was familiar with Jephcott’s groundbreaking work on youth leisure in 1960s Scotland, Time of One’s Own (1967),and was therefore intrigued by this chance find; more so when I discovered that there was only one copy remaining in the world, held at Hong Kong Baptist University. After moving to Hong Kong, I tracked it down. The report made for very interesting reading.

While there is an undoubted colonial tang to its genesis – a British researcher descending on the colony for a short fact-finding mission – Jephcott’s sense of grounded social justice and cultural sensitivity shines through. Though Hong Kong had undergone vast social and economic progress in the post-war period, as the population was swollen by refugees from China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, the ‘situation of children and youth’ was vastly different from that of Glasgow during the same era. While Glasgow’s youngsters were mooning around in the latest fashions, listening listlessly to pop music, growing their hair long and getting into fights, Hong Kong teenagers were working. As Jephcott puts it:

Hong Kong is essentially a society that as yet has little use for the pleasurable aspects of leisure. It believes in hard work and makes few concessions to childhood or youth…There is relatively little conception that play is essential for children’s proper growth or that adolescents need frequent breathing spaces from the strains of beginning to cope with the adult world. (Jephcott 1971: 34)

As we know from Phillipe Aries, ideas of childhood and youth are particular to time and place – contingent, among other things, on cultural history, economic development, and family structures. While Scotland experienced the birth of the teenager in the midst of post-war affluence, Hong Kong had little time for such fripperies. In 1970, 5% of 5-14 year-olds worked, and 60% of 15-24 year-olds; those that went to school predominantly paid for the privilege. The differences in housing and urban planning were also stark. While the postwar housing developments in Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate were occasioned by housing densities of 500 persons per acre, Hong Kong’s Wong Tai Sin estate held 2,200. Open-space provision in Hong Kong was 1/10 of an acre per 3,000 population, while the UK equivalent was 15 acres.

Just prior to the report, Hong Kong had undergone a tremendous rupture, in the form of a series of politically-motivated riots – known as the 1967 riots –targeted in part at the need for self-determination from the British colonial government. In the aftermath of the riots, the student movement, trade unionists and new social movements played a key role in stimulating significant and far-reaching social policy developments, instituted by the governor, Murray MacLehose. This programme of reform focused on the so-called ‘four pillars’ of education, health care, public housing and social welfare. Compulsory education was introduced at both primary and secondary level, and a systematic improvement of housing, health and welfare implemented along with a reform of police corruption in the form of the ICAC. These strategies have certainly reaped dividends for economic progress. Since its reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong has been officially recognised as a developed economy by the World Bank; the ‘jewel in the crown’ of China’s development as a global superpower.

Yet economic progress has not signalled the same cultural freedoms that British teenagers once enjoyed. Opportunities for Hong Kong’s young people remain yoked to an ever-expanding knowledge and service economy, with intense pressure to attain academic and financial success. Hong Kong scholar Lui Tai-lok summarises this tension as being, at heart, an issue of generational change. For Lui, there are ‘four generations’ of Hong Kong people. The first, born in the 1920s and 30s, escaped to Hong Kong during the Sino-Japanese war; quiet, hard-working and liberal-minded, they created an environment in which the second generation, post-war baby-boomers, could thrive. That second-generation brought with them new forms of youth culture, politics, and social movements – paving the way for subsequent developments – but also retained a firm belief in hard work, economic progress and familial reliance, retaining cultural sensibilities from the older generation. This attitude, for Lui, has created tensions with the current, cosmopolitan post-80s generation:

The post-80s live in an age of material abundance and economic affluence. But their life’s paths are severely constrained by their overprotective and supervisory second-generation parents, who are determined to prepare them for the competitive world at an early stage.

This recent discussion in the Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post definitely supports Lui’s view. While consumerism thrives in Hong Kong’s shopping malls and designer stores, subcultures and alternative lifestyles are thin on the ground: youth leisure remains structured by the constraints of time, space and money. Timetabled from a young age, with little private space, the post-80s have nonetheless shown great creativity in carving space for individual identity: from ‘colonising the night’ in the guise of Young Night Drifters, to growing evidence of political activism through the Scholarism movement.

As in Glasgow, however, there have been a great many young people that have been left behind by this great transformation – relative inequality, as measured by the Gini-coefficient, is among the highest in the world. The work that was available for young people without an education in the 1960s – in local manufacturing, food preparation, and labour – has evaporated, replaced by work in the service economy of airport retail and shopping malls.

With Jephcott’s pioneering work in Glasgow and Hong Kong as both benchmark and landmark, we will be investigating these convergences and divergences over the coming months and years. With luck on our side, this will reveal some essential truths about the impact of abstract notions of ‘globalisation’ and ‘neoliberalism’ on young people in the spaces of Glas/Kong.



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